Friday, December 31, 2010

Setting Intentions??? Please!


Look. The people who are doing this are friends of mine and I hate to be mean. But I just got a thing in the email about an "Intention Setting Ceremony for the New Year." It says, "Each New Year’s Eve a large group of us gather to set our intentions for the coming year and to recommit to our spiritual practices."

Fun. I wish I could go.

But, PUH-LEEEEEEZE! "Setting Intentions?" Seriously? If you're going to make New Year's Resolutions then make flogging New Year's Resolutions. Do we really need to put a big huge "I'M A BUDDHIST, LOOK AT ME!!!" button on for absolutely every occasion?

I've been hearing this "setting intentions" business for the past year or so now. I'm sure it's older than that. But I wasn't aware of it before.

I was, however, aware of a huge argument between Nishijima Roshi and one of his students about whether zazen was a state with or without intention. N's contention was that zazen was a state completely without intention. He would not back off from this position at all. He is a stubborn guy.

I have to agree with him. Zazen is, indeed, a state without intention. Sure. Of course. Everyone who gets into Zen practice gets into it with some kind of intention. I did. Buddha did. Dogen did. That's fine.

But zazen itself needs to be a state without intention, a state in which you give up all intention. This is not easy. But it is the most essential point of Zen practice. Without it, you have no real Zen practice.

So what do you do? You can't even intend not to have intention, since that is an intention as well. At least not in the usual sense.

That's your koan, right there.

The only hint I can possibly provide is that intention occurs within the realm of thought. To intend not to intend is kinda like what Dogen describes as "thinking the thought of not thinking." How do you do this? Dogen only says, "It's different from thinking."

Of course zazen as a state without intention and an intention setting ceremony for the new year are completely different animals. The only relationship is the use of the word "intention." There are realms of life in which intentions are absolutely necessary. I'm making some new year's resolutions of my own. You need to have some kind of intentions to get through life. So I'm not saying the folks who are doing this ceremony are bad or wrong, or that I'm better than them or anything like that. Except that I do think that calling new year's resolutions "new year's intentions" just to make it sound more Buddhist is really, really gag-worthy. Just my opinion. You are free to ignore it.

Happy New Year everybody!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

ASK ME QUESTIONS FOR MY VIDEO



Hey everyone,
it's Skylar and Brad.(:
We will be making a NEW VIDEO, Not our Christmas one, a new one for YOU. The fans!!
Ask us questions, comment us, and ask us ANYTHING YOU WANT (Unless it's insulting) and we will answer all of them . AS LONG AS THEY ARE QUESTIONS, not just random dumb posts.
But ask us, really. I promise all will be answered, we will be making the video tomorrow afternoon, so hurry and ask soon!!
Brad and Skylar.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

JESUS, CHRISTMAS and VEGETARIANISM


My latest post on the Safe For Work Suicide Girls blog is up now. It's called "Jesus is the Reason for the Season?" Read it by clicking on the link.

I'm at my sister's house in Knoxville, Tennessee to celebrate Christmas. My sister is a Christian and so is her daughter Skylar. Her son is a Jew. Most of the rest of the family are committed agnostics. It's very confusing!

Back when Westerners first started encountering Buddhists it used to be the thing to do to show Zen Masters the Bible and ask them to comment about Jesus. There are a few stories like this still in circulation. One of them has someone reading some old Zen Master the parable about the lilies of the field. The Zen Master claps his hands and says something like, "This fellow is very close to Enlightenment!"

I remember someone asking Nishijima Roshi what he thought about Jesus. Nishijima said, "I think he was a historical person." Meaning he thought of Jesus as a figure from history and not as God incarnated in the flesh. Other than that he didn't have any opinions on the man or his teachings.

People aren't quite as interested in what younger Western Zen teachers think of Jesus. But I have a lot of interest in the subject myself. I've recently been reading a stack of books on the subject. While I was at Tassajara this summer I read Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. I've also gone through several of Bart D. Ehrman's books, the best so far being Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, though I have yet to read his latest, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them). But it kinda looks like it's the same book. I also took The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition out of the library, which is pretty good, though I haven't finished it.

It seems to me that Jesus was, indeed, a historical person. The evidence isn't enough to absolutely prove his existence. But it's convincing enough. It's hard, though, to know just what exactly this person did or said. It seems unlikely he claimed to be divine, or of he did make such claims, they were much inflated after he died.

There are stories of someone similar to Jesus studying at a Buddhist monastery in Norther India during what would have been the "lost years." This is based mainly on evidence presented in Nicolas Notovitch's 1894 book The Unknown Life Of Jesus Christ. But lately the sources of those stories have been examined and found to be highly questionable.

Some other theories for the missing years even place Jesus in Japan studying Shintoism! Here's a nice webpage that lists most of the major theories.

The idea that Jesus was influenced by Buddhism is an interesting one. It's certainly possible he traveled to India or met Buddhist missionaries who were active in the Middle East during his lifetime. But there's no real compelling evidence, so all of that is just speculation, and probably will remain speculation forever. It's tasty brain candy. Nothing more.

A number of Buddhist authors have turned out books that compare the sayings of Christ and Buddha. Some want to claim Jesus studied Buddhism. Others just want to show how their messages are basically the same. I've leafed through a few of those, but they didn't look compelling enough for me to want to take them home.

I don't think the parallels between the sayings of Buddha and Christ suggest necessarily that Buddhism influenced Christ. To me it more suggests certain universal truths that underlie what we call "Buddhism" and what we call "Christianity." Both of these philosophies have grown and developed over the course of history to become something different from what their founders began.

But it's Christmas I'm in Tennessee to celebrate. I'm a vegetarian. I started being a vegetarian maybe 6 months to a year before I started doing zazen. I'd been a half-assed vegetarian for maybe 4 years before that, basically all through high school. YOU try being a full-assed vegetarian as a teenager in Wadsworth, Ohio in the early 80s!

None of the rest of my family is vegetarian and I'm in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is hardly the easiest place to go meat-free. But I'm sure I'll survive.

When I got into Zen, I started hearing all the counter arguments against vegetarianism. And there are a lot of them. The most compelling one I've heard recently is that conscious meat consumption is less environmentally destructive and can be personally healthier than the kind of willy-nilly vegetarianism most of us veggies practice.

To give just one example, a lot of vegetarians refuse to buy leather. I did for a long time. I'd go to places like Payless to get imitation leather shoes instead. Then I realized I was probably supporting child labor and sweatshops through those purchases.

I'm far too lazy to get as deeply into this kind of stuff as some folks do. But it's just one example of how a decision to be mindful of the suffering of animals can lead you to create more suffering among people.

Anyway, when I started hearing stories about Buddhist masters who weren't vegetarians, I asked my teachers, both Tim & Nishijima, if I ought to drop the vegetarianism stuff. Neither of them are vegetarians.

They both encouraged me to keep being a vegetarian. So I still am. I think it's a good habit. I would only advise vegetarians not to be too full of themselves about how much better we are. Of course, we are better. We just need to not be so full of ourselves over it! Because we may not be as angelic as we think.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Ultra Christmas and Anger


Ultraman Ace episode #38 has got to be one of the weirdest Christmas episodes in all of TV history. If you can read Japanese, here's a synopisis of the episode. It's got lots of neat frame grabs from the show even if you can't read the text.

Basically, the snow monster Snowgillon attacks Tokyo. A gigantic mustachioed, but beardless Santa Claus (see photo) battles the creature. I think he gives Ultraman Ace some kind of special ray power to deal with the beast too. Then Santa turns out to the Father of Ultra, the daddy of all the Ultramen. In the end he flies away on a silver sleigh along with the Minami, who had been part of Ultraman Ace's alter ego (it took two people to transform into Ultraman Ace, Hokuto, a man and Minami, a woman, but Minami left some time in the series).

Weird. Just weird.

My friend Takeshi Yagi directed a far less weird Ultraman Christmas episode called "Ellie's Christmas" in 2005 for the series Ultraman Max. There's a brief synopsis of that episode here.

I'll be spending Christmas at my sister's house where my dad is coming to join the fun. I like Christmas. It's fun.

I just spent the whole morning writing a Christmas-themed article, which will appear on the Suicide Girls Safe For Work Blog on Monday. I'll put the link up here once I get it. So I'm not gonna write a lot about Christmas here.

Here's a question from the mailbag:

"What is wrong with my anger at why the world is wrong? The Clash gave me a code to live by in the song 'Clampdown,' 'let fury have the hour,anger can be power.' What I want to know is, why must I kill my anger toward things which are wrong? Exploitation of workers, rape, sexism, racism, fascism, conservatism, militarism, Islamic female circumcision practices, universal health care, and most importantly, the environment are my biggest concerns. And for as long as I can remember, the complete lack of general concern for these issues has thoroughly pissed me off. But like The Clash said, anger can be power and I have always believed that getting angry, really fired up about the world's problems is the best way to solve them. When I get angry about, say litter, it just reminds me to recycle a little more and consume a little less.

You get the picture right? Anger can be useful in solving problems, in dealing with injustice. Do I still have to kill my anger toward injustice?"


My answer:
(I always start with "my answer" because these articles go up on Facebook and all the careful formatting I do disappears)

The answer is that there is nothing "wrong" with your anger. People are constantly characterizing me as an "angry" person based on my writing. I think that I'm not as angry as I used to be, but I'm still just as angry as I used to be. Which is a typically contradictory "Zen" way of saying that even though I'm angry still, I don't get angry about my anger like I used to.

In other words, the emotional component of what we call "anger" is clearly useless. It doesn't help anything. And yet when I hear about the stuff you've described, it pisses me off. Lots of things piss me off.

I just saw an interesting talk by Alan Senauke from the Berkeley Zen Center. Alan wrote a very cool book called The Bodhisattva's Embrace: Dispatches from Engaged Buddhism's Front Lines. He's into the whole engaged Buddhism thing. He works for a lot of causes. He goes places. He does stuff.

But when questioned in a similar manner about anger over the troubles of the world after his talk, Alan said something to the effect of, "I try to limit my intake of TV news." I like that advice. Our duty is to deal with the shit right in front of us. But we get sidetracked by the tons and tons and tons of information we are now able to receive about things we really can't deal with because they're too far away or they're too big, etc.

You can easily drive yourself into a tizzy over all the stuff there is in this world to get angry about. I have no doubt that if/when we establish communications with creatures from other planets, it won't be long before there are people on Earth wringing their hands over the unfair treatment of the Krell in the Gomular fields of Regizon IV. It's just human nature to feel like that.

But anger as an emotion gets in the way of what you need to do to effectively deal with those things you're angry about. It blinds you with rage and you don't see the real solutions right in front of you.

Sure anger, in one sense, can be power. But the emotion of anger isn't very powerful if you ask me. It's debilitating.

So it really depends what you mean by the word "anger." I'm angry at sexism. But it doesn't do me any good to sit and stew over it. When there are cases of sexism that I can do something about, I do what I can do. Like maybe if I was there when Ultraman Neos was fondling that poor girl in her Santa outfit I might say something. But not if she was clearly enjoying the attention. My general feeling of anger over the issue remains as part of my personality whether I'm acting on it or not. But it makes no sense to get emotional about things I can't do anything about. The general overall problem of sexism is far too big for one person to fix.

This doesn't mean I have a lack of concern. The whole idea that being all emotional about big issues is a way of being concerned is kind of a red herring. It's something that seems to be relevant to the issue at hand when it really isn't.

When you talk about "being fired up," I think what you're really referring to is holding on to a part of your sense of personal self. You fear that if you don't hold on to your anger, it will go away and you'll just be complacent. In my experience this is not what happens at all. You don't become complacent. You become more relaxed and more realistic about where you can help and where you cannot.

I hope that made some kind of sense.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

THE ECONOMICS OF ZEN


The sexy website Lucrezia Magazine has published some stuff from my new book Sex Sin and Zen.

Here's their review.

And here's an except they published from the book.

Thanks!

And speaking of that book, I have about 6 copies of Sex Sin and Zen, maybe eight of Hardcore Zen and a few Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate but no copies of Sit Down and Shut Up (sorry!). So for a limited time, I will sell you a personally autographed copy for just $25 (it's a rip off! You can get 'em for way less than that without someone's writing inside!). Send in a donation (the button is on your left) and attach a note saying which book you want and who you want it signed to and the address to send it to. I can't promise they'll make it in time for Christmas. But I'll do my best. If I happen to get orders after the books are gone, I'll refund your donation.

Why am I doing this? Because New York is like a giant vacuum cleaner sucking up all my money -- even though I have the most amazingly cheap rent you could ever imagine.

So I thought it's about time I wrote an article I've been thinking about for a good long while. I've called this "The Economics of Zen." But it's more the economics of Brad. Still, I think there's a lot in my specific personal experience that relates to many people in this business. I hope this post won't come off like a bunch of whining, but instead be somewhat instructive and useful.

Before I begin, I want to state clearly that even though I will be referencing some future speaking gigs that I'm in the process of setting up, none of what I'm going to say here should be taken as any kind of a veiled message to the people I'm organizing those gigs with. Whatever I've needed to say to you I have said or will say directly. But the examples are too good to pass up. So I'm going to use them. Just don't read anything into this stuff. OK? Thanks!

OK. I often receive invitations to speak in cool exotic places. And I love speaking in cool exotic places. This year I've been to Tel Aviv, Warsaw, Helsinki, Belfast, Wupetal and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, just to name a few! It's great.

But I think a lot of people who send me invitations don't really get what all's involved. Many people assume, for starters, that I make a decent living off of book royalties. Not so. What I get from book royalties alone keeps me well below poverty level. There is no way I could live off just book royalties unless maybe I moved to a corrugated cardboard box in the basement of Shinjuku Station or something. Seriously, though, I did search for a place in the USA that I could afford just on book sales and came up with nothing. Not even in Akron, Ohio!

Like almost every author I have to supplement my income somehow. What I've been trying to do the past two years is to do what lots of writers do and supplement my book earnings through speaking gigs.

Let's say you invite me to come speak in Bloomington, Indiana. You get me for two days. You offer me a generous $200. Hey! That's $100 per day. Not bad! And really, if you think of it that way, it's not.

But for me to get to Bloomington, Indiana, I have to spend three or four days just getting there and getting back home. And in order to be able to be available for a gig in Bloomington, I can't be holding down a regular five-days-a-week 9-5 job. No job I can think of would be happy with me running off at random intervals for a week at a time.

This is why I usually ask for traveling expenses and a speaking fee. My fees, by the way, are really low from what I've been able to learn about what other writers and Buddhist teachers charge.

Some people invite me saying that I can collect donations (dana) and sell books. That's OK. But sometimes I get to a place and sell three books and the dana ends up being like $75. It's too risky for me to give up other potential income (like a 9-5 job, for example) on that kind of a gamble.

Remember there's no retirement plan in this and no health insurance scheme. Then there's the car and its insurance. It's all gotta come out of my pocket.

Various people I've encountered or read about in the Buddhist teacher business have different means of dealing with this sort of thing. Many belong to large organizations who have networks of temples and can support them should donations not be enough. One guy, a Canadian I met in Japan, was from a sect that doesn't allow him to handle money. But I found his tactics a bit suspect. He was very slick about getting the people around him to pay for all kinds of stuff that I couldn't afford -- and I was working a real job at the time I encountered him. I wouldn't feel right doing that kind of thing. I'm too proud and Midwestern maybe. I could do the Genpo Roshi thing and ask for $50,000 to spend five days in a luxury hotel with me. If anyone wants to make that offer, I'm ready to talk. Yeah, right.

I talked to a Zen teacher I respect in California who told me that what he does is ask for a "minimum dana." I haven't tried this myself yet. But I might.

So now I'm thinking about what to do next. All the traveling I'm doing is fun, but it wears a fella out! Plus it's only just barely covering basic living expenses. I'm really grateful for all the donations and suchlike I've received. It's a beautiful thing. I can't tell you how wonderful. I know a lot of people are digging deep for my sake. It's a tremendous thing. But, at the level I'm at now, I'd have to be traveling almost constantly just to get by.

I made things work for most of 2010 by not having an apartment of my own and just trusting things would work out. They did. But being homeless is tough. Think about it. Where do you pick up your mail? I've had about six temporary addresses this year. A lot of important stuff has gone missing.

I have gigs in February and March that'll probably come close to covering my rent. Hey, I may even make a little scratch. But after that I'm seriously considering packing in the traveling author/teacher thing and just getting a normal job again. That is, if there are any of those left anymore.

I hope this doesn't sound too complaining. Sometimes the few people who already understand what's involved take things I say about this stuff way too personally and think I'm whining about them. I'm not. Or else people bitch in the comments section about how I promote my books and stuff. Yes, I do. I have to. Nobody else is doing it.

I'm not really complaining. Life is good. I just feel like, since I get so many invitations all the time, it's good to let everyone know what it is they're asking when they invite me to come speak somewhere.

And for all of you wondering where the "dharma" is, well, this is it. Lots of folks don't talk about this side of it. But it's there and it always has been.

Thanks for listening!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Bodhi Day? Schmodie Day!

One of American Hardcore author Steven Bush's favorite hardcore bands is Zero Defex from Akron, Ohio! Click on the sentence to go read him say it!

Also I now have a French author page. So go see that if you're French or Canadian or Ghanian or wherever else-ian where they speak French.

Also part two of my interview on Dr. Dick's Sex Advise is up. So you can go listen to that.

Yesterday I went to the John Lennon memorial in Central Park on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Lennon's death. I didn't shoot this video. But this is pretty much a visual account of what I experienced when I was there (you just don't get a sense of how frikkin' COLD it was):



I think I must have gotten there a few hours after whoever shot this video. But it was basically the same scene. And I stayed for just about as long as this video runs. I think I heard three or four songs. I couldn't see the musicians, just like whoever took this video couldn't. I think they were in the center of the circle somewhere. There was a trumpet player joining in by the time I got there. I don't know how anyone could play guitar in that cold. Then again, it was freezing cold on the roof of the Apple offices when The Beatles played their final concert (the one filmed for Let It Be).

When I posted some of this same stuff on Facebook, some people there marveled at the fact that I would post about John Lennon's death rather than about Bodhi Day, the supposed day of Buddha's enlightenment, which also is commemorated on December 8th.

But Bodhi Day never meant all that much to me. None of the teachers I sat with ever made a big deal out of it or held Rohatsu Sesshins, which is the common practice in a lot of Zen centers this time of year. Nishijima Roshi was always a bit of a curmudgeon about anything that seemed the least bit ceremonial or superstitious. I think the idea of doing a special sesshin on a day when Buddha probably didn't even actually get enlightened seemed pretty ridiculous to him.

I don't feel like it maters much. Sometimes you just pick an arbitrary time to do a thing, and doing a sesshin around December 8th is as good as any other day. So why not? I'm planning on attending a rohatsu sesshin this weekend here in New York.

But I do tend to agree with Nishijima's feelings about making certain days more "holy" than other ones. I mean, I love Christmas even though I'm not a Christian. But it's no more or less holy than any other day.

The idea of things like a Christmas ceasefire in a war always baffled me. I mean if you can have a ceasefire on December 25th, why not just stop firing at each other all together? Makes no sense to me.

I sit zazen every single day unless some really difficult circumstance prevents it. That's the most essential part of Buddhist practice. Saving all your zazen up for a sesshin in early December makes no more sense to me than calling a ceasefire on Christmas. It's sort of the same attitude, really. Of course it's a less violent expression of that attitude. But it's still pretty much coming from the same place.

Monday, December 06, 2010

New Suicide Girls Piece: :Living Simply

OK. I got a new Suicide Girls blog up. It's called Living Simply and you can find it by clicking on the words "Living Simply." How simple is that? And this is the safe-for-work site. No naked boobies or buttocks!

Got a Skype call last night from a friend of mine in Japan. She had just returned from a 5-day Zen retreat in another lineage, which shall remain nameless but rhymes with Barada Basutani. She showed me these big huge bruises on both shoulders from severe beatings with the kiyosaku (stick of discipline). She said they didn't even stop smacking her when she cried. Guys in the zendo were yelling "Mu! Mu! Muuuuuuu!" as they sat. Apparently of her group three people got enlightenment. She was not one of them.

The whole thing sounded intensely ridiculous and even comical. I'm glad I never went to any of those kinds of Zen retreats. I would have rejected it right away. Maybe when I'm not so tired I'll write up a piece on why this kind of practice is so incredibly silly.

For now I'm just baffled.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

PODCAST, OFTEN AWESOME, URBAN ZEN and PROPER POSTURE (yet again)


First up the Hardcore Zen Podcast has recently been updated. It's all about SEX! So go have a listen.

I'm also now up on another podcast: Dr. Dick's Sex Advice.

Secondly, now that the Christmas season is here, I wanted to once again direct your attention to Often Awesome, the group of friends of mine who have joined together to help their friend Tim LaFollette in his battle with Lou Gehrig's Disease. It's a damn shame to live in a country where the only way a guy like this can get the help he needs is by begging from strangers. But that's the U.S. of A. for you. Don't get me started... Just donate something!

Back to questions from readers. I don't have a specific email for my first question. It's just something that keeps coming up especially now that I have moved to New York City. The question goes something like this: How can I practice in an urban setting with all the noise and hassle and speed and distractions?

I was just reading Shohaku Okumura's Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen's Shobogenzo last night and came across the answer. Okumura cites the old Japanese folk tale about the rabbit in the moon. The story, which I have cut and pasted from this website, goes like this:

"The Old-Man-of-the-Moon one day looked down into a big forest on Earth and saw three friends sitting together around a fire. These three were a rabbit, a monkey and a fox. Amazed at seeing a group of friends like this, he went down to Earth and changed himself into a beggar. He told the three friends that he was very hungry. On hearing this they all ran of to find him some food. The monkey brought back a lot of fruit to the man and the fox brought back a big fish. However, the rabbit was unable to find any food for the man, and so asked the monkey to gather some firewood and the fox to build a big fire with the wood. Once the fire was burning very brightly, the rabbit explained to the beggar that he didn't have anything to give him, so he would put himself in the fire and when he was cooked the beggar could eat him. Just before the rabbit jumped into the fire the beggar turned back into the Old-Man-of-the-Moon and told the rabbit that he was very kind, and that he shouldn't do anything to harm himself. Because he decided that the rabbit is the kindest of the three, he took him back to the moon to live with him."

Okumura writes that as a young Buddhist monk he often felt like that rabbit. He was ordained at 21 and began living off the donations of others. He says that as a result he never developed any skills that would allow him to have a regular job. He often felt guilty about receiving donations from people who did "real work" when he could offer nothing in return. All he could offer was his practice. He says, "I tried to practice zazen as if I was offering my body and mind to all Buddhas." And, of course, by "all Buddhas" he means everyone.

In New York City people like to blow their horns. It's not quite as bad as Cairo or Jerusalem because you can actually get fined for unnecessary use of your horn here. Although I doubt if anyone ever really is fined for that. In any case, whenever I hear some asshole honking his horn for no good reason* I recall that I am doing my practice for him. I am training myself to be better able not to add to the stress and frustration that causes guys like that to have to lash out at others. Every little bit helps.

TODAY'S FIRST EMAIL QUESTION:
A really awesome friend of mine is typing up this question for me because I am in prison right now. In your book “Sit Down and Shut Up” you said Dogen says not to study Buddism without a teacher. But what about when you’re in a place without a teacher? I’ve read all of your books more than once. I’ve read books by Gudo Nishijima, Dogen, et cetera. I lend time to zazen everyday. What else can (or should) I do? Is there anyway to study Buddhism without a teacher?

MY ANSWER:
I get a lot of "how can I study Buddhism when I'm so far away from a teacher woah is me" type questions. And I'm not incredibly sympathetic because I managed to find a great teacher in Kent, Ohio in 1983, a time and a place where there should not have been anyone to teach me Zen. I'm aware of magnificent teachers in such far flung places as Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Helsinki, Finland. There are amazing teachers all over the damn place of only you take a look. A lot of people who ask this question are either too lazy to look around or too fussy about finding a teacher who fits exactly their preconceived notions. If I had waited for a teacher who fit my ideals about a teacher I would never have studied with Tim McCarthy or Gudo Nishijima.

But some people, like the guy who wrote me, really are in positions where a teacher is absolutely not available. To them I say, just continue your practice. There are points in practice where you genuinely have to have an outside opinion. I often cite the story of Shoko Asahara, the dick-wad who decided he was Enlightened and that this meant it was OK to jump start the Apocalypse by putting poison gas on the Tokyo subways as an example of what can happen when you try to teach yourself to meditate.

That's a very extreme case. You probably won't do something like that. I hope. Most likely your zazen will be sort of boring and maybe a little confusing. You might feel like giving up sometimes. But you'll be OK. Wait it out a little and you will probably find yourself in proximity to a teacher at just the moment you truly need to be. I really believe in the old cliche that "when the student is ready the teacher appears."

Guys who try to solve the problem of students who feel they need a teacher RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE by being available too easily are probably not doing anyone any great favors. The difficulty involved in finding a teacher is often part of the process that makes you ready when you do finally find one.

As fro what you can do besides zazen and reading... I don't know. That's all I've ever really done for my practice apart from talking to my teachers. Joshu Sasaki said to read lots of good books. I've always liked that advice. I made my own webpage of Zen books I think don't suck.

SECOND EMAIL QUESTION:
I have been reading your excellent book Sit Down and Shut Up and I have a question about the chapter 'Proper Posture Required.' It is not clear from the way the chapter is written the extent to which you think Zazen is possible in other positions. Whilst I have been taught that posture is very important, I have also been taught that it is possible to practice Zazen whilst kneeling on a bench, sitting on a chair, walking and even lying down, as long as the zazener is paying proper attention to their posture. I do not current possess the flexibility to practice in the iconic lotus positions, so I use a meditation bench. Do you think my meditation practice is completely shot as a result? Because I don't! However, I do not currently have a ready-made Sangha to visit to ask questions!

MY ANSWER:
As I've often said, the posture in zazen is not arbitrary. It is part of the practice. No decent Yoga teacher would let a normal healthy person sit in a chair and bend forward a little then tell them they were doing the Downward Facing Dog pose just like the rest of the class. But if that Yoga teacher saw that sitting in a chair bending forward a little was the best approximation a certain person could do of Downward Facing Dog, she'd do her best to help that person in the hopes that maybe with a bit of work she could do the posture correctly someday.

I think Zen teachers who tell students that sitting in chairs, on benches or even lying on the floor are the same as sitting cross-legged on a cushion are not doing their students any great favors. Yes I KNOW that the full lotus posture is a bitch. YOU DON'T HAVE TO DO THE FULL LOTUS POSTURE! I don't know why every time I say anything about "right posture" a million commenters immediately assume I mean full lotus and get all red-faced and angry about it. I have always been very clear on this. Even Dogen doesn't insist on full lotus and he's about as hard-line on matters of posture as anyone you'd ever want to encounter.

But unless you really, truly, no bullshit, absolutely cannot sit cross legged on a cushion in any way shape or form then you really have to sit cross-legged on a cushion to do zazen correctly. Here's Gudo Nishijima explaining how to do it.

Your meditation practice is NOT completely shot because you do it on a bench. Do I need to say that again? Maybe I do because so many people seem to miss it when I make statements like that. So here goes:

Your meditation practice is NOT completely shot because you do it on a bench.

Those kneeling benches come kinda sorta close to getting you into a decent zazen posture. But it's still not the same. I would keep working on my flexibility. Try some Yoga classes. They're good for you! You might meet some cute people there too! Then after a while you can put away the bench until such time as you're old and arthritic and can't do the posture anymore. Then when you actually really do need the bench, pull it out again and use it.




* And I do mean "assholes honking for no good reason." I got honked at once here during the 1.7 seconds it took to shift my car from neutral to first gear. I also heard another guy get honked at because he failed to run over me when I was crossing the street in front of the guy who was in front of him (I had a walk signal too, by the way, as if that would even make a difference).